“I meant it so you would feel like you just had walked into one of the episodes,” Karen Kilimnik says of her mixed-media installation The Hellfire Club episode of the Avengers (above), “so I do mean it to be like you’re in a movie or something.” Face to face with Patrick Macnee as the steely John Steed and Diana Rigg as the lively Emma Peel from the old espionage television series, The Avengers, you enter not only the make believe world of spying and disguising, but also the pop culture-strewn, identity-questioning world of the art of Karen Kilimnik, who brings together her passion for classic art and her passion for modern celebrity ala Andy Warhol, whose autograph Kilimnik owns as a telling sign of her own insatiable fandom. In the exhibition catalogue to the show previously at the Institute of Contemporary Art, The University of Pennsylvania and now at The Aspen Art Museum, Ingrid Schaffner and others examine the many masks and masquerades of this unique, post-Warholian artist.
KAREN KILIMNIK, Me—I Forgot the Wire Cutters Getting the Wire Cutters from the Car to Break into Stonehenge,1982, 1998; water soluble oil color on canvas, 16 x 20 inches; Courtesy Nina and Frank Moore
“Sidestepping all of the anticipated postmodern positions,” Schaffner writes in her introductory essay, “Lives Naturally in World of Theatre + Illusion,” “Kilimnik’s art is disarmingly subjective—immersive, imaginative, opinionated, possessive. It simultaneously mediates and expresses those desires and emotions, which appear like the imagery itself, to be left critically unresolved, full of mystery and aspiration.” Kilimnik open-heartedly allows herself the pleasure of being a fan, the standard affliction of modern consumers of pop culture, and refuses to place judgment on the subject matter’s value or on herself for loving it so. “Kilimnik is taking the stand that Warhol so famously offered: the possibility of taking no stand at all,” Schaffner concludes. Like Cindy Sherman in her photographic series mimicking the conventions of old movie stills, Kilimnik tries on different personas in her self-portraits, posing as Elizabeth Taylor at one moment and as a vandal breaking into Stonehenge in another (above). Using what Scott Rothkopf calls Kilimnik’s “pitch-perfect ear for the telling cultural signifier,” the artist continually plucks from the stream of commercial consciousness the prize of the one concise image or combination of images that resonates with the viewer.
KAREN KILIMNIK, Should I, Like the Heroine of the Ballet, Defy the Command and Make a Dangerous--and Possibly Fatal--Bid for Freedom?, 1998; crayon and pastel on paper, 34” x 26”; Collection of Gregory R. Miller, New York ; Courtesy of 303 Gallery, New York
Like Joseph Cornell, Kilimnik’s acquisitive, inquisitive imagination lands upon the world of ballet in images such as Should I, Like the Heroine of the Ballet, Defy the Command and Make a Dangerous—and Possibly Fatal—Bid for Freedom? (above), which drops the visage of actor Leonardo DiCaprio into a tableu of an unnamed ballet. Kilimnik surrounds the images with a narrative of the ballet, showing the verbal facility that leads Rothkopf to call her “wordly wise.” The unwieldliness of many of Kilimnik’s titles weights down her often bare-bones drawings and paintings with added narrative heft, such as the Stonehenge self-portrait above and this ballet scene. The ballet in Kilimnik’s hands becomes a masque in the sixteenth-century sense, with individual dancers’ identities superfluous to the work at hand. “Borrowing” DiCaprio for the role of a prince or even interchanging the actual dancer’s identity for the role they play, Kilimnik stirs up a fluid sense of individual identity that gives full reign to the play of the theatrical in her works. In addition to watching balletic performances, Kilimnik herself has been taking ballet classes since 1999 to learn the steps and positions firsthand, something that you could never imagine Cornell or that ultimate devotee of the dance, Edgar Degas, ever doing. Kilimnik continually places herself within the action her art examines.
In the midst of Kilimnik’s love affair with such pop culture effluvia as the tragic events behind The Boomtown Rats’ song “I Don’t Like Mondays,” her 6-hour film obsessively rerunning the crueler exchanges of the movie Heathers, and the humorous appearance of The Pink Panther in so many works, it’s easy to forget the serious student of art behind the fangirl/woman. Kilimnik’s Master Hare, 6:45 p.m. belongs to a series of retellings of Sir Joshua Reynolds' famous portrait. By revisiting that image and placing the specificity of “6:45 p.m.”, Kilimnik, in Schaffner’s view, “turn[s] a romantic sense of the past into an operative present.” Or, as Dominic Molon in his essay, “Karen Kilimnik’s History Lesson,” puts it, Kilimnik’s homages to the art of the past, as well as her pop culture studies, “demonstrate how our obsession with history as mediated by movies, television, and, of course, works of art, gives the past its unshakable presentness.” Just as when she makes over Paris Hilton as Marie Antoinette in one painting, Kilimnik continually makes over the art of the past, even the recent past, into something startlingly, continually present and relevant.
Schaffner sees this constant presentness as the “intrigue of Karen Kilimnik’s romantic imagination,” in which “the world we live in is also shown to be the one we desire.” Rather than flee from the visual stimulation all around her, Kilimnik embraces it, bringing her imaginative power to bear in transforming it into something transcendent. Kilimnik’s art is “not so much an escape from reality but a way of knowing it,” Schaffner believes. Whereas artists of the far distant past turned to mythology, the Bible, and literature to speak the shared language of the time, Kilimnik turns to pop culture to speak the modern idiom of the most visual generation ever to walk the Earth. Neil Postman once warned in the title of his study of popular entertainment that we were Amusing Ourselves to Death. Karen Kilimnik, instead, shows us how to amuse ourselves to life.
[Many thanks to the Institute of Contemporary Art, The University of Pennsylvania for the review copy of the exhibition catalogue Karen Kilimnik and for the images from the exhibition.]